The Fallout in Chad from the Fighting in Darfur
The Fallout in Chad from the Fighting in Darfur
Sudanese refugees in Chad.
Refugees stand in a shelter in Chad, close to the border with Sudan. July 2023. Crisis Group / Enrica Picco
Q&A / Africa 15 minutes

The Fallout in Chad from the Fighting in Darfur

War in Sudan’s Darfur region has triggered a refugee crisis in eastern Chad and raised concerns that turmoil could spread. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Enrica Picco draws upon research at the Chad-Sudan border to explain the challenges facing N’Djamena. 

What is happening?

Chad was facing a turbulent time even before April, when fighting broke out in Sudan’s Darfur region on its eastern border, and things have only got worse since then. President Mahamat Déby Itno, who took over on an ostensibly interim basis after his father unexpectedly died in 2021, appears set on staying in power. Discontent with his regime is growing, despite efforts led by the Economic Community of the Central African States (ECCAS) to facilitate an agreement among key political parties on how to handle the transition after, in October 2022, a police crackdown killed more than 200 demonstrators. The repression has weakened the political opposition and civil society, prompting several leaders to leave the country. Key Chadian rebel groups remain excluded from the transition, while others are dissatisfied with the government’s disarmament and reintegration program, which is supposed to be their bridge back to civilian life. Since May, the military has clashed with armed groups in the northern Tibesti region and in the north of the neighbouring Central Africa Republic (CAR), near Chad’s southern border, while the late July coup in Niger threatens to unsettle the western frontier. 

But even against this troubled backdrop, the situation in Darfur may be the biggest challenge that N’Djamena faces. The border between Sudan and Chad has long been volatile. Since Chad won independence from France in 1960, Darfur has served as a safe haven for Chadian rebels. In the 2000s, cross-border ties among ethnic Zaghawa led to years of proxy warfare between Chad and Sudan. Late Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno directly supported Darfuri rebel groups, such as the Justice and Equality Movement, now led by Jibril Ibrahim, and the Zaghawa wing of the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement, led by Minni Minnawi. He allowed them to use Chad as a rear base to fight Khartoum-backed Arab militias in Darfur. In response, former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir backed Chadian rebel groups that launched an offensive on N’Djamena in 2006 and another in 2008. To calm tensions, Khartoum and N’Djamena signed a non-aggression pact in 2010, but cross-border family and clan connections remain strong, with the potential to influence national politics. 

How is the Sudanese conflict unfolding in Darfur?

Since April, the Sudanese army led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has been engaged in a disastrous power struggle with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), headed by his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo. The war has displaced more than four million people and devastated several parts of the country, pushing the Sudanese state to the brink of collapse. While the capital, Khartoum, has thus far been the main battleground, the two sides are also fighting in other places, notably the far western region of Darfur, which borders Chad, Libya and CAR. 

The war has displaced more than four million people and devastated several parts of the country, pushing the Sudanese state to the brink of collapse.

Darfur has suffered armed conflict over land, natural resources and power for decades. In the early 2000s, Darfuri rebel groups joined forces to rise up against Khartoum, which they perceived as neglecting the country’s peripheries and oppressing non-Arab minorities. The central government hit back with a brutal campaign aimed at the rebels as well as non-Arab ethnic militias (eg, comprising Zaghawa, Masalit and Fur fighters) suspected of supporting them. Khartoum also committed atrocities against civilians from these communities, relying mainly upon local Arab-identifying ethno-linguistic groups whose militias came to be known as the Janjaweed. The vicious, indiscriminate campaigns in which the Janjaweed sacked villages and killed civilians – tactics echoed in Sudan’s current conflict – drove more than one million people from their homes. Many Arab men from neighbouring Chad joined the pro-Khartoum militias, some driven by the political crisis in their country and others by financial motives. They received support from the Bashir regime in the following years.

Amid a mounting international outcry, the Sudanese government and Darfuri rebels signed a peace agreement in 2006. The agreement was followed the next year by the deployment of a hybrid AU-UN peacekeeping mission, UNAMID. In 2009 and 2010, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Bashir, who was charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide committed in Darfur. But despite these efforts at peacemaking and accountability, the underlying tensions persisted. 

A popular uprising that spread throughout Sudan starting in late 2018 inaugurated a new phase in the country’s internal dynamics. After the army toppled Bashir in 2019, Sudan’s transitional authorities entered negotiations with a range of rebel movements, including Darfuri ones, from long-neglected regions of the country. The parties signed a deal, the Juba Peace Agreement, in October 2020. The deal allowed for representatives from armed groups in the country’s peripheries to take government posts and for significant public money to go to these areas. It represented little, however, but a division of spoils among elites, as it failed to redress the imbalances of political power and resource allocation between the centre and peripheries. Meanwhile, the RSF, which had its origins in Khartoum’s counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur and since 2013 had become something like a praetorian guard for Bashir, grew even more powerful after its erstwhile patron fell. For five years, it was in effect an equal partner with the army in ruling Sudan, both openly and behind the scenes; in October 2021, the army and RSF worked together to upend the civilian-led transitional government in a coup. 

The fragile equilibrium between the two forces did not last, however, and in April the Sudanese army and RSF came to blows, roping Darfuri tribal militias into their bloody war. The RSF and its Arab-identifying allies in western Sudan took control of several towns in Darfur, including El Geneina and Kereneik (West Darfur), Nyala (South Darfur) and al-Fashir (North Darfur). In May, eyewitnesses report that RSF fighters targeted non-Arab Darfuri communities that had sided with the army at the beginning of the conflict. A group of young Chadian Arab men reportedly joined them, mainly to earn money. (There is no evidence that the RSF set out to recruit Arabs across the region.) Although the army then gave weapons to non-Arab militias to confront the RSF, the latter quickly gained the upper hand. 

Refugees told Crisis Group that army soldiers in the area, meanwhile, were unwilling or unable to protect civilians.

Refugees told Crisis Group that army soldiers in the area, meanwhile, were unwilling or unable to protect civilians. On 14 June, Arab militias killed the West Darfur governor, Khamis Abdallah Abbakar, hours after he told a Saudi news channel that RSF and affiliated fighters had pillaged El Geneina and were committing “genocide” against non-Arabs while the army stood by. Khamis was a former Masalit rebel leader and a Juba peace deal signatory. The following week, Arab militias murdered hundreds of Masalit civilians and went on a looting spree in what appeared to be a targeted campaign of tribal violence. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented freshly dug mass graves in the area, and senior UN officials have highlighted reports of conflict-related sexual violence. All these events are highly reminiscent of past horrors in Darfur.

Adré, the main entry point for refugees from Sudan, experiences waves of refugees fleeing Darfur. Authorities estimate, on average, 1,500-2,000 new arrivals per day. July 2023. Crisis Group / Enrica Picco

How many refugees have arrived in eastern Chad?

The resurgence of fighting in Darfur has also uprooted hundreds of thousands of civilians, as it did in the 2000s. Over the past three months, the UN refugee agency has registered 329,000 newly arrived Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad, as well as some 48,000 Chadian citizens who have fled Darfur. Between late April and early May, fighting in West Darfur drove almost 9,000 non-Arab Sudanese, primarily Masalit, from their homes. In mid-May, a second wave of around 85,000 refugees arrived, including officers from the Sudanese army and police, fleeing the RSF’s attacks.

By the end of June, Adré, the main entry point for refugees from Sudan, 30km west of El Geneina, was seeing still more refugees stream in. Most of them were women and children with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Many refugees established makeshift camps on the border, telling Crisis Group that they were awaiting the arrival of other family members. In Adré, Médecins Sans Frontières received about 600 patients with gunshot wounds over three days, with many having been shot in the legs as they ran away. Accounts of sexual violence against women and girls were also common. 

At the time of writing, Adré’s authorities are recording 1,500 to 2,000 new arrivals per day, mainly Masalit. The actual refugee numbers are likely to be much higher than those registered by the UN, as many Sudanese have found shelter with Chadian hosts. Aid agencies are gradually arriving in the area, but the humanitarian response is still falling short.

Humanitarian aid is gradually arriving in the area to attend to the more than 329,000 Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad and some 48,000 Chadian citizens that fled Darfur. July 2023. Crisis Group / Enrica Picco.

How has Chad responded?

President Déby closed the border with Sudan the day the conflict broke out in Khartoum (though not to refugees) and deployed troops in the area. He adopted a neutral stance and called for dialogue between the warring parties in Sudan. France, which is Chad’s main security ally and has about 3,000 soldiers in N’Djamena that had been part of Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, has sent forces to the east to help the national army with logistics. There, they will also be in a position to gather intelligence on any threat to Chad’s stability. Yet securing the 1,400km Chad-Sudan frontier remains a challenge. Contraband trade in fuel and other essential commodities has thrived. Reports indicate that the RSF and affiliated militias are willing to pay up to $100 for a 20l barrel of fuel, which ordinarily would fetch only about $20 in Chad. Concerns about weapons smuggling are also widespread. 

The transitional government swiftly responded to the refugee crisis. Local authorities have made land available to build refugee camps, while N’Djamena has allowed UN agencies and international NGOs previously based in Sudan to relocate their operations to eastern Chad. The Chadian army, meanwhile, is escorting aid workers along the border, reportedly in return for financial compensation. On 17 June, shortly after the governor’s murder in El Geneina, Déby spent three days in Adré to call attention to the dire humanitarian situation. According to several local sources, he said Sudanese refugees are welcome in Chad but that the issues in Sudan should remain confined to Sudan. 

Still, eastern Chad is struggling to accommodate the new arrivals. In Adré, Sudanese refugees outnumber the permanent residents by a factor of three. Prices of fuel and charcoal have doubled. Housing is increasingly scarce, compelling many refugees to camp on what should be working farmland. The priority for N’Djamena is now building new camps well into the country’s interior. This measure should ease pressure on Chadians living along the border and lower the risk that the RSF and its Arab allies will pursue Masalit fighters seeking shelter in Chad. Masalit refugees are getting most of the attention, prompting growing frustration among Arabs on both sides of the border, who feel they are being unfairly associated with the RSF and its allied militias. They are victims of the conflict, too, they say, since the RSF has reportedly gone after Arabs who had helped Masalit get into Chad. Meanwhile, Chadian Arabs say their livelihoods have dried up because trade with Sudan has stopped. They are confining themselves to their ferricks (villages) for fear of retaliation from non-Arabs, who accuse them of sending their sons to Darfur to fight with the RSF.     

What are the risks to Chad’s stability and political transition?

President Déby is under increasing internal and external pressure to choose a side in the Sudan conflict. On one hand, Zaghawa elites in Chad are reportedly expecting N’Djamena to support Zaghawa militias in Darfur, including materially, as they seek to counter Arab militias. The Zaghawa elites hope these militias might unite with the Chadian army in the event of a new rebellion against the Chadian authorities, like they did in the 2000s. This is likely one reason why the troops Déby deployed along the Sudanese border are mostly Zaghawa. Observers also believe that former Darfuri rebel leader Minni Minnawi, a Zaghawa who was backed by Déby’s father in the early 2000s, traveled to N’Djamena in June in order to secure the authorities’ support. 

President Déby is under increasing internal and external pressure to choose a side in the Sudan conflict.

These efforts may be hard for Déby to ignore, given that he needs the Zaghawa clan’s political backing to stay in power. Moreover, clan members in Chad are already making clear their discontent with recent decisions that Déby – who is Zaghawa on his father’s side and Gorane on his mother’s – has taken. These include forcing the retirement of more than a hundred generals in the past couple of months, a move perceived as an attempt to reshuffle the army. Addressing their grievances, including by siding with the Zaghawa in Darfur, could make Déby stronger overall in Chad but might incur hostility among the Chadian Arabs who are also part of the ruling coalition of northern elites in N’Djamena. Any support for the Zaghawa in Darfur would of course be poorly received by the RSF and its allies in Darfur. 

But Déby is reportedly being pulled in other directions as well. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a powerful supporter of the RSF, appears to be pushing Déby to take a stance of positive neutrality toward Hemedti. Abu Dhabi has been trying to strengthen ties with N’Djamena, and signs of its influence in Chad are multiplying. In mid-June, Déby visited Abu Dhabi to sign a military cooperation agreement that resulted in the delivery of armoured vehicles and security equipment several weeks later. In July, the UAE opened a field hospital in Amdjarass, a city in north-eastern Chad. These moves are raising concerns, which observers have expressed both privately and publicly, about the UAE using Chad as a base for transferring material support to the RSF in Darfur. Though not verified, these rumours might affect perceptions of whether Déby’s stance is truly neutral and contribute to increasing dissatisfaction among the Zaghawa clan in Chad. That disaffection, in turn, could prepare the ground for a power struggle among the ruling elite that could deeply destabilise the country.

At the local level, another risk to Chad’s stability comes from the pressure exerted by the arrival of Sudanese refugees on Chadians living in the east. As the harvest season approaches, farmers have lost access to their fields, where refugee camps now sit. The resulting socio-economic stress has not triggered a significant reaction from the local population just yet. As a traditional chief stated to Crisis Group, “We support each other and follow orders”. The massive presence of the Chadian army has also, for now, deterred the transformation of growing discontent into something more volatile. But more refugees are arriving, and they will likely stay in Chad for a long time. The country is already hosting around 400,000 Sudanese refugees from the 2000s Darfur war. To accommodate the new ones, local authorities will likely appropriate still more agricultural land. The land available for transhumance corridors – where herders pass through with their livestock – will likely also be reduced. Such actions could exacerbate tensions with refugees as well as existing intercommunal conflicts between herders and farmers in the Ouaddaï region, as Crisis Group warned in 2019. 

The Darfur violence could affect Chad’s political transition.

Finally, the Darfur violence could affect Chad’s political transition. The transitional authorities are due to hold a constitutional referendum on 17 December, followed by legislative and presidential elections in 2024. But Déby could use the emergency in eastern Chad to justify another delay in the transitional calendar, which he has already extended beyond what was initially agreed upon. In July, Prime Minister Saleh Kebzabo implied that such a change could be in the works, telling diplomats in N’Djamena that the scale of the refugee crisis might require modifying the transition. 

It is not clear whether putting these key dates further out will have an immediate impact. Although it could deepen discontent among Chadians and (if it permanently derails the transition) deal a serious blow to both governance and prospects for stability over the long term, the short-term effects are more uncertain. The government’s post-October 2022 repression has left the political opposition and civil society unable to organise mass protests. Meanwhile, Western countries, including the U.S., France and other EU member states, may be tempted to place near-term security needs above democratic principles, as Chad remains their only ally in the Sahel after the July coup in Niger. They may turn a blind eye to delays in scheduled votes, as well as to efforts by Déby and his circle to retain power, notwithstanding the conditions imposed by the AU. Precisely this scenario has worried Chad’s political opposition and civil society since the summer of 2022, when the national dialogue (which most such groups decided not to attend, perceiving it as insufficiently inclusive) began. In October 2022, the dialogue participants determined that members of the transitional leadership could run for election, leading to violent protests. 

What should Chad do?

The war raging in Darfur presents myriad risks for N’Djamena. Pressure from domestic clans and foreign powers to choose sides in the Sudan conflict, as well as the humanitarian crisis in eastern Chad and attendant land issues, could have destabilising effects on a country that has already been somewhat shaky of late. Authorities could point to the situation as a reason for Chad’s own transition timetable to slip once more. To mitigate these risks, the Chadian transitional authorities should urgently take the following measures with support from international donors.

First, President Déby, along with the military’s top brass, should hold firm to Chad's non-interventionist position, including in formal diplomatic settings. On 13 July, in Egypt, the leaders of Sudan’s six neighbours agreed to work together to resolve the Sudanese conflict, establishing a follow-up mechanism that held the first of a series of meetings in N’Djamena on 7 August. As part of this initiative, Déby should make clearer his position that Chad will not be dragged into the conflict in Darfur, focusing instead on using its historical relationships with key players (including ties formed by Déby’s father) to facilitate de-escalation and promote political and security arrangements that can help stabilise that region. Déby took an important first step in this direction in mid-July, when he hosted a meeting between Hemedti’s influential brother, Abdulrahim Hamdan Dagalo, and two Juba peace deal signatories, Minnawi and Jibril Ibrahim. Similar initiatives could contribute to mediation efforts to end the war in Sudan. 

Secondly, in partnership with Chadian authorities, donors should scale up assistance to Sudanese refugees in the east of Chad. As international aid agencies start setting up operations on the border, coordination is vital for a more targeted and effective response. 

Thirdly, the authorities should anticipate and work to alleviate current and potential future socio-economic pressure on communities in eastern Chad with the following measures. Before they relocate Sudanese refugees to the interior, they should enhance coordination with traditional chiefs and community leaders to build consensus regarding land use. Given that these leadership roles are traditionally occupied by men, women’s organisations should also be involved in efforts to address the influx of refugees, not least in order to ensure that the needs and priorities of the large proportion of women refugees, and their children, are addressed. Chadian authorities should establish mixed committees involving refugees and local representatives responsible for identifying suitable sites for new refugee camps that do not interfere with the activities of farmers and herders. Meanwhile, collaboration with international aid agencies is crucial for providing some form of compensation to Chadians affected by the humanitarian emergency. One form could be local development projects focused on infrastructure and economic growth. These measures could help prevent tensions from escalating between refugees and long-time residents, as well as address existing grievances between herders and farmers. 

Finally, Chadian authorities should not use current and future security challenges as a pretext for simply shelving the idea of a transition. Though the opposition, civil society and foreign partners may have no leverage to press the government to stick to the transitional calendar, or to insist that members of the transitional leadership decline to run when election day arrives, Déby should build on the ECCAS efforts at reconciliation led by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Félix Tshisekedi and resume dialogue with all the parties involved in the political process ahead of the 2024 elections. Above all, he should ease tensions by reconsidering the eligibility of the transitional leadership in the forthcoming elections, consistent with the AU’s above-referenced terms, and by publicly committing to transferring power to civilians at the end of the transition. This is the best way to avoid turning Chad’s transition into a source of lasting grievance and instability in a region that scarcely needs more such problems.

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